By Jill Goodman, Ph.D. (cand.)—O.S. Department at USC
Book Review: Passing: when people can’t be who they are (2003) Brooke Kroeger
In the book “Passing; when people can’t be who there are” (2003), Kroeger tells the narratives of five individuals who have spent all or part of their lives ‘passing’. She defines passing as “when people effectively present themselves as other than who they understand themselves to be” (p. 7). The narratives all represent a different aspect of passing. Within these stories, individuals pass due to race, gender, religion, economic status, and sexual orientation. Some individuals consciously passed in order to evade harassment or embarrassment. Other individuals unconsciously passed, not aware of the ways in which they were passing. Each chapter focuses on the story of one individual. Kroeger provides a rich and detailed description of the lives of the people passing, as well as how they came to ‘pass’, and if or when the person stopped passing. The stories show a wide range of effects from passing including the damage to social relationships, the emotional strain, the fear and at times shock of passing, and the arduous work involved in passing effectively.
In chapter one, the author introduces a black man who struggles to pass as white. In chapter two, we meet a white woman who inadvertently passes as black, not fully realizing the ways in which others perceived her. Chapter three focuses on passing both in regards to ethnicity and religion. A young Spanish (as she refers to herself) woman converts to Orthodox Judaism. The culture of Orthodox Judaism leads her to hide her Spanish name and identity to allow her to fully participate and belong in the religion. Chapter four addresses sexual identity, exploring the life of a conservative Jew aspiring to become a rabbi, while concealing his gay identity. Chapter five also deals with sexual identity. This is the story of a lesbian woman who hides her sexual identity in order to be in the Navy. The final story comes in chapter six in which a male writer lightheartedly uses a female name as a byline. This leads to a long complicated process of a man passing as a woman, if only in print.
Within the presentation of these stories, Kroeger provides analysis of the social and personal effects passing has, both in the lives of these individuals as well as in the broader culture and society. She writes, “passing stories allow us to see which aspects of identity seem to be fixed and unchangeable – at least at the present time – and which can shift and gurgle and spill into other identities, those that are not fixed at all” (p. 9). Her exploration of the many ways in which people can pass demonstrates the complicated nature of passing and its wide reaching effects. According to Kroeger passing can be permanent, temporary, part-time, full-time, and involves multiple identities. The stories also point to the overlapping of identities when passing, such as ethnicity, class and religion. This book is useful for those searching for a detailed look at passing. Kroeger depicts a wide myriad of examples of passing and the intricate patterns and effects resulting from passing.
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